Friday, August 20, 2010


"I have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night."

Galileo Galilei

I am very comfortable at night. It is my best working time. During the day it is hard to ignore the tasks that should be dealt with, but after seven or eight in the evening there seems less that is imperative and I am more at ease sitting down at my drawing table. Perhaps that is why I am more drawn toward moths than butterflies. Most of them fly at night.

When I was young I thought I had to choose "my favorite color" or my "favorite song". Now I can say that I love all colors and don't find any of them offensive. I love yellow and I love green and I love red and blue. I have no favorite song and no favorite city....but I do have a favorite insect. Or, rather, a favorite family, the Sphingidae, commonly called hawk or sphinx moths. The first one I remember seeing in the "wild" was hovering around our lilac bush at dusk. I was sure it was a hummingbird. Then I was sure it was a huge bee.

The Sphingids have very streamlined shapes with more narrow wings and robust bodies. I have looked at all the drawers with specimens of hawk moths at the University of Michigan and marveled at the complex patterns and amazing colors. I can't imagine why they are so dressy when they fly at dusk and into the dark but I am thrilled that they exist.

In the drawing of Sphinx Moths and Star Map I chose sixteen of my favorite specimens and coupled them with my version of a 17th century Dutch star map.
I am not good at identifying constellations in the night sky and I can't keep straight all of their complicated and sometimes goofy stories, but I am immensely charmed by the early drawings and actually hopeful of remembering some of the information stored in them.

In the corners of my drawing are four phases of the moon. The new moon is replaced by a black hollyhock which is a reminder of the link between the changes in the sky and the changes in the earth.

This drawing now hangs over the Sky Cabinet.

Sunday, April 11, 2010


"Whoever thinks of going to bed before twelve o'clock is a scoundrel."

Samuel Johnson

The inside of the SKY cabinet's doors also have drawings - which will seldom be seen. I forget they are there and am usually surprised when I open the doors. The cabinet will function as a bookshelf like the piece of furniture it has replaced. I am starting a collection of things for the cabinet should there come a time when it no longer needs to hold books.

There is a small drawer which has begun to collect objects that relate to the night sky -
a small box of antique buttons that have images of the moon, a beautiful star ornament from India, a copper star-shaped cookie cutter and a rock with a natural image of a star.
Presently I am producing an artist's book that will reproduce images from the doors of the cabinet paired with poems and prose by writers I know.

The drawing in the top door is a combination of the Milky Way and a group of "migrating" birds. All the birds are from the collection of the Cranbrook Science Museum.

Several years ago while on a quest with my brother John to see the Tecumseh slab, a war stick in the museum collection, I had the pleasure of meeting Kevin Kelly who is in charge of the collections. In a bold moment I asked if I might be allowed to draw from specimens in the drawers of birds. Not only have I been allowed to draw but I have been allowed to check out birds the way one would check out books from a library. It is a unique opportunity for me to draw birds under the conditions that best suit my own desk, with good light, an excellent pencil sharpener at my elbow and, most important, at the times that are good for me. My studio doesn't close and is often in operation until 1:30 am.

Migration is a fascinating concept and one I hope to learn more about. The few facts that I have learned are amazing. For instance, a bird can continue to fly while half of its brain is asleep. When that half wakes up the alternate side rests.

The bottom door of the cabinet features the Eastern Screech Owl, Strigidae Megascops asio.
The specimen I drew from is in the collection of the Cranbrook Science Museum.
This small owl is very common even in urban areas. One would, however, never see so many stars in the sky over the Detroit area where I live. I have been witness to that kind of display only when camping out west. Sleeping under the stars is one of the greatest pleasures I have experienced.

The comet is in honor of Caroline Herschel, a remarkable woman who assisted her more famous brother Sir William Herschel. On her own she discovered nine comets.


"How lovely are the portals of the night, when stars come out to watch the daylight die."

Thomas Cole

Our planet, Earth, is represented here by a number of plants and animals named for stars. We seem to accept the shape of the star as having points when what we see in the heavens are just pin points of light - oblate spheroids of hot gas. The points are probably references to the emission of light and appear in very early images.

SUGAR STARFISH resting on top of a WHITE FINGER STARFISH; both are very common and belong to the family Asteriidae, with Supernova remnant, SN1987a

SUNFLOWER STARFISH, Asteriidae Pycnopodia helianthoides, with Star cluster Hodge 301.

STAR FRUIT, Averrhoa carambola, with reflection Nebula Chameleon complex.

The spice STAR ANISE, Illiceae Verium, with the Star forming region DR21.

LONG- SPINED STAR SHELL, Asteriidae Astraea phoebia, with Emission nebula NGC346

The wildflower SHOOTING STARS, Primulaceae Dadecatheon medadia , with Supermassive black hole Sagittarius A.


"In the sky, there is no distinction of east and west; people create distinctions out of their own minds and then believe them to be true."


The constellation HERCULES with the Hercules beetle, Scarabaeidae Dynastes Hercules and the starburst galaxy NGC 4214.

Hercules is one of the oldest of the sky figures. It has been of importance in so many cultures that no other constellation has so many different names. We know him in mythology as the Roman half god/half man who was so strong that he was able to perform the 12 labors set for him by King Eurystheus of Mycenea. In the sky he is depicted resting on one knee with his left foot on the head of Draco, the beast he has just slain as one of the labors.

Likewise, his namesake, the Hercules beetle, is immensely strong with the ability to carry 850 times its own body weight, making it the strongest animal for its size in the world. The specimen shown in the drawing is a male of the species. The female has no horn.

The constellation SCORPIO with the emperor scorpion, Scorpionidae Pandinus imperator, and the Starburst galaxy NGC 1569.

The specimen in the drawing was given many years ago to our son Barrett by Bill Peck who found it in Egypt while excavating. Despite the large size and ominous appearance, the sting of this species is mild, so this scorpion is actually not much of a threat.

One of the odd attributes of all scorpions is their ability to fluoresce under black light. They turn greenish yellow and glow like stars.


"Observe how system into system runs,
What other planets circle other suns..."

Alexander Pope

MARS with the Elephant beetle, Scarabaeidae Megasoma mars, and the globular cluster Omega Centauri.

Red and rocky, named for the Roman god of war, Mars looms large in our imagination so it is surprising to note that it is only half the size of our own planet.
Interest in the planet is augmented by the vast number of movies and books about life there and particularly about that "life" coming here. The first movie was actually made by Thomas Edison in 1910. It lasted 4 minutes and included a scientist and a giant. It was not a documentary. Just reading the names of the movies on the list of the Mars Society of San Diego is a treat.

The panic caused by Orson Welles' radio broadcast of War of the Worlds on October 30, 1938 and the continuing belief in the events at Roswell NM in June or July of 1947 point out the deepseated fears that many people harbor regarding the possibilities of invasion from outer space.

Invasion by the Megasoma beetle that is pictured with the planet is unlikely in most neighborhoods, although it is fairly common in South America.

with the Madagascar sunset moth, Uraniidae Chrysiridia riphearia, and local universal map 2 Mass.

Uranus is a modern planet, unknown to the ancient astronomers. Using a telescope, Sir William Herschel discovered the dim, distant planet in 1781. It was eventually named for the ancient Greek god of the sky.
It is almost featureless, primarily made up of helium & hydrogen gas, a blue-green "ice-giant" with 20 known moons.

While the planet may be featureless, the day flying Uraniid moths are spectacularly beautiful and often mistaken for butterflies.

SATURN with the moth Saturniidae Eacles imperialis and the supermassive black hole Sagittarius A.

The famed rings of Saturn were first seen by Galileo through the new invention of the telescope, but they were originally misinterpreted as moons.
The image of Saturn is so beautiful that it is hard to reconcile its relation to the unrelentingly dreary reputation of the Roman god it is named for.

The Saturniidae moths have eye spots that are reminiscent of Saturn's concentric rings.


"I often think the night is more active and alive than the day."

Vincent van Gogh

The idea for the second cabinet in the Room of Curiosities was triggered by the theme year at the University of Michigan in 2009 which honored the 400th anniversary of the invention of the telescope. One of the main organizers of the exhibitions and lectures was Amy Harris, director of the Exhibit Museum where I go to draw. I met Amy when I had a show of my drawings in the building's rotunda in 2001 and am honored to call her a friend. Her enthusiasm for the year of astronomy project was infectious. It made me want to do something of my own to honor the sky.

I decided to do drawings for the doors of a cabinet using objects on earth named for something in the sky, then couple them with their astral partners. The background of each drawing, with the exception of the sun, is based on photos from the Hubble telescope.

The cabinet on which the drawings are mounted was built by Oscar Hoff, a carpenter and photographer who came highly recommended by several other artists. He suggested using ebonized walnut for a beautiful dark effect and he inlaid the many little abalone beads in the door frames that I wanted to emulate stars. When the cabinet was delivered it was one of the only times that I have not had to get accustomed to something before I liked it. I was thrilled immediately.

The following posts will document the individual drawings in the project.

Saturday, April 10, 2010


"If the sun & moon should doubt,
they'd immediately Go out."

William Blake

In ancient Egypt the sun, or solar ball, was thought to be rolled across the sky by Khepri, a self-created deity, the god of the rising sun. It did its course from east to west ending in darkness and then being recreated by the deity each morning.

The scarab beetle, while performing the very useful task of getting rid of dung, seemed to emulate Khepri when it would roll the excrement, preferably from herbivores, into balls and move it with great determination, regardless of obstacles in its path. The beetle is capable of moving 50 times its own weight, so the size of the ball compared with the beetle can be impressive.

Another connection for the beetle with Khepri and the sun is the idea of resurrection. The beetle lays her eggs in the dung balls she creates and when her eggs hatch they appear to be born spontaneously. Plutarch declared there was no female and after the male injected his semen into the dung the new beetle created itself. The hieroglyphic image of the scarab beetle translates as "to come into being" or "to transform".

The scarab beetles I have drawn are all dung-rollers in the collection of the University of Michigan. The large central black beetle is Scarabaeus sacer, the sacred scarab. The others show how wonderfully colorful and beautiful these insects can be.

The moon is portrayed with a galactic star cluster, four of its phases, American elm leaves, my hand and one of the beautiful wild silk moths, Actias luna. The luna moth lives in deciduous hardwood forests and is one of the largest moths in North America, with a wing span of about 4 1/2 ". Its name may come from the moon-like eye spots on its wings.

There is a story that goes with this image:

When I was out west acting as a cook for a field biology group, I would try to absorb as much science as I could when I wasn't chopping vegetables. I followed students and the instructor when they went out collecting and observing. At night mist-nets (which resemble badminton nets) would be set up over available water sources which lured bats. The bats would become tangled in the nets. Late at night the nets would be checked and bats would be gently removed, identified, examined and released.

One night at the Lytel Ranch in southwest corner of Utah a magnificent moth also got caught. I insisted that it be removed carefully or I might just cut it lose. Dr. Tom Tomasi of Missouri State University spent a very long time extricating the moth. When it was free he put it in my hand and told me now it was my problem.

The moth sat very still.
It was sitting still while all of the bat work was accomplished.
It remained still while we made our journey back to the campsite.

It was clear that I was not going to be able to put on my pajamas or brush my teeth while it remained in my hand. I struggled into my sleeping bag and the two of us lay there for a long time under the beautiful stars, surrounded by desert willows. Eventually I felt the most wonderful sensation. It was as if someone had breathed gently on my hand. The moth had lifted into the night air.

Saturday, March 6, 2010


I have sold my drawings over the years but I have never wanted to make my living trying to please people with my work. Instead I have earned my way by doing framing. It has given me a chance to see on a very intimate basis many amazing works of art brought in by collectors and artists. I consider it a serious business, showing respect for the work in terms of the presentation which you see and in terms of preservation which you don't see - the work behind the mat and inside the frame.

In my own project I have chosen to go in the opposite aesthetic direction. I have been hunting for handmade frames that are a statement in themselves. My most satisfying finds have been longer in the area of being eccentric than classically constructed. Even the art is going backwards. I have been drawing to suit the frames.

The vine frame was a present from Wanda Miller. It was just a flat construction with no possible way to install anything in it. She said "I knew you would figure out what to do with it." 20 years later it occurred to me to have a normal frame constructed and attach the vine frame to it. The beetle, Scarabaeidea Propomacrus jansoni, from the "Insect Range" at the University of Michigan, with its twig- like appendages, suited the frame perfectly.

I have been very lucky in my relationship with the University of Michigan Exhibit Museum and with their entomology department which is housed in the same building. Mark O'Brien, who maintains their great collection, has allowed me space to draw in and has been more than generous in his help. Days spent in that building in Ann Arbor have been among the most fruitful and happiest that I have known in my professional life.

The folded leather frame was found on E-Bay. The seller dated it from the late 1800's. It was set up to hold a picture by sliding it in between the leather and a small flap of cloth. This was another case of impossible installation so I had a black frame built to act as a base. The beetle, Scarabaeidae Dynastes titus, has a background that emulates old wallpaper, true to finding a bug crawling up your wall.

The tramp art frame is German and was made by either a less talented tramp or one that had inadequate materials. It is the classic chip carved style but it is put together in bits and pieces, not long strips. The beetle it holds is a Cerambycidae Batocera.

I went over my budget to get this shaped wooden frame covered with tooled copper. It was irresistible. No one would ever confuse it with something mass produced. I bid. I won. I waited. Then I forgot it was even out there until it arrived in the mail and I found out that it was sent from Peru. It was a challenge to find something suitable for the shape and the feel of the frame. The winning insect is the beetle Cerambycidae Petrognatha gigas with its strange wavy legs and antennae. The flower it is sitting on is a delicate poppy that came in a bouquet from Mary Alice Benkert.

The butterfly enclosed in this little frame is a Nymphalidae Hamadrys feronia. It was part of a series of drawings of butterflies that are camouflaged but not in the way that they were designed to blend into their natural surroundings. Each background is specific to the insect and each one is quite different. This one is the pattern on a piece of textile that echos the weight and design of the wings. The frame is an Ebay purchase, handmade and irregular with a leaf in each corner. It is a common ornament but more charming than usual do to the hand of the person who made it.

I have a little supply of frames that are awaiting the perfect subject. One is another tramp art frame that was made out of a tin can! I have very high standards for my frames.


"Rocks are records of events that took place when they were formed. They are books. They have a different vocabulary, a different alphabet, but you learn to read them."

John McPhee

Every fall my husband would take our three children to the gem and mineralogical fair then held at the Light Guard Armory. I would stay home, placing value on a couple of hours of quiet when I could get something accomplished. They would return with small brown bags filled with piles of precious polished stones and boxed samples of identified minerals. Everything would be revealed with awe at the kitchen table. One year I went too and became addicted immediately. Since then I have rarely missed the event.

Two of my husband's great prizes are his pieces of crazy lace agate, Cryptocrystalline quartz,
from Mexico. In ancient times they were worn to placate the gods and sharpen sight. We find them amazing for their brilliant colors and intricate patterns.

In the drawing they are coupled with birds, an indigo bunting on the left and a bobolink on the right. Behind are pieces of coral.

That completes the review of the drawings that face the first cabinet.

Recently my second cabinet was completed by Oscar Hoff, a fine carpenter and photographer.
I was lucky to have him work with my project as he could take my basic design, refine it and construct it so that it worked. It is one of the only occasions in my life when someone else completed something for me and I did not have to acclimate to it for a couple of weeks before liking it. I was happy immediately.
The theme of this cabinet is the SKY and its interior will act as a bookshelf. I will be introducing this work to the blog soon but first I am going to take a break and cover a couple of small framed works that have been completed for the room.

Thursday, March 4, 2010


"I have the world's largest collection of seashells. I keep it on the beaches of the world...perhaps you have seen it."
Stephen Wright

I live in Michigan where we are famous for our mitten of land surrounded by the beautiful Great Lakes which can be seen from outer space. The state is filled with hundreds of bodies of water from tiny ponds to sizable inland lakes. Fresh water is a fabulous resource but it is not home to the creatures and plants that I gathered together for this drawing. For me they are wonderfully exotic and mysterious.

The preserved fish in the center of the drawing is a puffer fish from the family Tetradontidae. When alive it was one of the second most poisonous animals in the world. Despite that, when prepared properly, the meat of the fish is considered a great delicacy in Japan and Korea.

The fan coral belongs to the order Gorgonacea. It is a colony of many individual polyps that began with a single founder. They anchor themselves with a long root in sand or mud, at right angles to strong currents that bring them the plankton they consume during the night.
Both the coral and the puffer fish are from the collections at the University of Michigan Exhibit Museum.

The sea urchin, in the class Echinoidea, sits in front of the puffer fish. Its name comes from an old name for the spiny hedgehog. It is a spherical invertebrate with 5 part symmetry, covered with spines that act as protection and help with locomotion. The skin is a hard shell called a "test". The mouth, known as Aristotle's lantern, is on the underside and has 5 teeth.
Its main diet is algae and it is eaten by sea otters and wolf eels, among others, and the ovaries are considered a delicacy by humans.

The coral and the sea urchin might be confused with plants but they are animals. The only plant in the drawing is a piece of kelp I found on the beach in Massachusetts.

The many armed sunflower starfish, Pycnopodia helianthoides, on the far left, is a fast moving predator. The juveniles begin with 5 arms and keep adding more as they grow until as an adult they might have as many as 24 arms. The specimen I own was given to me as a present by Bill Close, another person in love with the world and its contents.

The objects that are less natural but still belong with the sea are 3 spoons and a cameo.

The largest spoon and the cameo came from my favorite antique store, Balcony Row in Holly, Michigan. Jim Hilty and Evelyn Raskin have created a combination store / museum that certainly speaks to cabinets of curiosities. Their interest in their inventory has the quality of genuine intellectual excitement. They have rescued so many architectural artifacts that even the structure of their building abounds in stories. Knowing people with such energy and integrity has been a pleasure.

The spoon has no markings but it feels to me like Florida with its carved wooden alligator handle and the bowl made from a shell carved simply and elegantly into the head of a native American. It might well have been made as a tourist item but it has for me enormous charm that lifts it above the trinket level.

The little shell spoon was made of 2 shells in 1907. I "repaired" it for the drawing. In real life there is a bit missing from the bowl of the spoon. Regardless of its condition it delights me to think of someone creating this souvenir. The tiny spoon is part of a pair of salt servers that were given to me by Henrietta Slote. Now that so many kinds of salt are available that you would not want to put into shakers, these little spoons are once again truly useful. My favorite is a salt made from pink Himalayan fossils. What could be more appropriate to serve with dinner in a room of curiosities?